Each NBA Team's Franchise Centerpiece Entering the 2016-17 Season
There can only be one.
For some NBA organizations, the choice is obvious. Their best player is still in his prime, posting massive numbers and serving as an on-court leader while performing in a manner that makes it easier to surround him with complementary talent.
But not every team falls into that category. Sometimes, the centerpiece is the man to whom the hopes of the franchise are tethered, even if he isn't yet the roster's premier contributor.
Even the luckiest teams that boast numerous building blocks have to push forward a single franchise centerpiece for this exercise. No matter how much talent fills up the depth chart, one man has to stand out as the indispensable piece around whom everything else is built.
Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder
Paul Millsap remains the Atlanta Hawks' best player, and Dennis Schroder falls well below him in the pecking order. You can make a convincing argument that Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and Kyle Korver are all superior players right now.
But a team's centerpiece doesn't have to be its present premier individual, and no team better represents that truism than the Hawks. By trading Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers this summer and turning the reins over to the young, unproven point guard, they displayed their commitment.
If the Hawks are doomed to stay mired in mediocrity, it's because Schroder doesn't experience any sort of breakout and remains a turnover-prone, inconsistent floor general. If they suddenly take the next step in the Eastern Conference, it's because he reaches a level Teague never ascended to.
"I think he’s going to go out and do whatever he can to elevate his game and elevate us," Kris Humphries told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore about his 22-year-old teammate. "I think Coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] and [general manager] Wes [Wilcox] and all of us teammates expect him to bring his game to another level now that he’s getting the opportunity that he’s wanted."
The Hawks continue to acquire two-way wings who can help space the court, and Millsap is the biggest threat to make the All-Star team. But for better or worse, they've tied their fate to Schroder.
Boston Celtics: Al Horford
We mean no disrespect to the incumbent stars here.
Isaiah Thomas was a deserving first-time All-Star after getting a chance to serve as Boston's unquestioned offensive leader, averaging 22.2 points and 6.2 assists per game. Jae Crowder was the two-way wing force who glued the team together and may well have been its most impactful player, even if he didn't receive that same midseason honor.
But the newly signed Al Horford immediately becomes Boston's best player, and he's vital to the Celtics' schemes.
As crucial as Thomas has been to the offense, head coach Brad Stevens builds his strategies around bigs who can stretch the floor and provide skilled contributions—things Horford could do in his sleep for the Atlanta Hawks. He's a massive upgrade over Jared Sullinger (now with the Toronto Raptors), Kelly Olynyk and the other frontcourt players who have eaten up the majority of Boston's minutes during previous seasons.
His defense also gives the team a new element, thanks to the all-around excellence predicated upon his instincts and his quick hands. Horford has long been one of the NBA's best centers, and he's now entering a situation primed to exploit all of his many talents.
Brooklyn Nets: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
The Brooklyn Nets have found plenty of placeholders on their upward climb, and some of them stand out as their most notable names. But who of these will still be on the roster when the team finally regains competitiveness?
No one resonates more with the national audience than Jeremy Lin, for example, but it's tough to call him a centerpiece when he's far from elite at the league's most critical position. Brook Lopez is the best player on the roster, but he's also a perfect trade-deadline piece if Brooklyn is looking to acquire more future assets.
It's all about upside in the Barclays Center, which is why the team was willing to take high-ceiling, low-floor gambles on players such as Caris LeVert during the 2016 NBA draft. Thus, the centerpiece (for now, since the Nets should hope this changes for the better in the near future) has to be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Already a deft defender as he prepares for his sophomore season, Hollis-Jefferson is a consistent jumper away from a substantial breakout. He's the one player on the roster with 1) serious untapped potential and 2) potential that Brooklyn's likely to tap into.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
Everything has clicked for Kemba Walker.
He's no longer an inefficient volume shooter who specializes in step-back jumpers and long twos.
His perimeter stroke worked at above-average levels (37.1 percent on threes) in 2015-16, which spaced out the court for his athletic bursts to the basket. He finished from within three feet at the best rate of his career (59.8 percent), and that inside-outside combo allowed him to mitigate the ill effects of his lackluster mid-range shooting and remain more efficient than ever.
He's also no longer a defensive liability whose lack of size (6'1", 184 lbs) holds him back against almost every opponent. For the third consecutive season, Walker has posted a defensive box plus/minus indicative of league-average (or better) play. This year, it came despite his shouldering even more offensive responsibility.
The best news of all is that despite the substantial improvement, Walker is only 26 years old. He's still moving toward his prime, not away from it.
Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler
By trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks and seemingly not fighting to retain Joakim Noah in free agency, the Chicago Bulls have made it clear this team belongs to Jimmy Butler. It's not like Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo are suddenly going to become centerpieces in new locations at this stage of their respective careers.
We're not going to go through this all year. This is Jimmy Butler's team. Myself and (Rajon) Rondo are here to bring what we bring, as athletes to this team and to this city. He's a young bull on this team. He's a 26-year-old that can play 40 minutes if coach wants him to, and maybe more. I ain't trying to do all that. And we're going to depend on him a lot.
It won't be a tug and pull of whose team it is. We're all playing together. We all have one common goal, and that's to win.
And now, it's Rondo's turn. Again, per Neuharth-Keusch: "It's Jimmy's team. Jimmy, Wade and then whatever after that."
Who are we to argue? We only do that when the players are wrong.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James
Sorry, Kyrie Irving. Sorry, Kevin Love. (Sorry, James Jones.)
LeBron James will be the Cleveland Cavaliers' centerpiece until he retires or departs for a new stage of his career outside Northeast Ohio.
If he snaps his fingers and gives an order, it seems like the franchise is bound and determined to grant his wishes, whether he wants to sign a player or get rid of a head coach. Plus, James is still the best player on the roster.
He proved that during the 2016 NBA Finals by digging deep and dragging the Cavs out of a 3-1 series deficit against the 73-win Golden State Warriors. The dude averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from downtown on the sport's biggest stage.
When motivated, James can impact a basketball game like no one else. That doesn't mean he deserved to win MVP over Stephen Curry during the regular season (he didn't, and he didn't), but the Finals left little doubt he was the superior player when the prospect of losing his city's best title chance was driving him.
Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki
It's less than ideal when a 38-year-old is the franchise centerpiece, but who else could the Dallas Mavericks choose?
Deron Williams is on the downswing, serving as a placeholder point guard until the team can find the future of the position. Wesley Matthews hasn't been the same since an Achilles injury ended his tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers, and he'll celebrate his 30th birthday shortly before the start of 2016-17. Andrew Bogut obviously isn't the answer.
That leaves Justin Anderson and Harrison Barnes, neither of whom has shown he can perform at an All-Star level.
Nowitzki, meanwhile, remains skilled enough to work his way back into that conversation and just signed a two-year deal to stay in Dallas. The Mavs still believe in his ability to produce, and they keep seeking out players such as Bogut who complement his skill set—as clear a sign as any that he remains the centerpiece.
Is this an indictment of the roster-building strategies by the Dallas front office? Sure, but it's also a testament to the German 7-footer's enduring excellence.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
Picking just one centerpiece for the Denver Nuggets is nearly impossible. General manager Tim Connelly and the rest of the Mile High front office have done a fantastic job of assembling talent to the point that the roster is overflowing with upside.
Kenneth Faried, Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Jusuf Nurkic are all intriguing players with plenty of untapped potential, but they don't even make the top three. That would be: Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic.
The Italian small forward was the go-to scorer in 2015-16—a role he should continue to fill. But he's already 28 years old and plays such a versatile game that the Nuggets don't need to make any specific roster moves in order to maximize his talent. Plus, he's best suited as a secondary scorer who isn't drawing the brunt of the defense's attention on a nightly basis.
That leaves Mudiay and Jokic, and that competition is basically a coin flip.
The former was the more heralded prospect entering their mutual rookie season, but he disappointed for much of the year and fell behind the latter in the Rookie of the Year voting. Jokic trailed only Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns, and it was largely media attention that prevented him from becoming the runner-up to Towns. He was that good, as he recently proved against Team USA during the 2016 Rio Olympics' group stage.
"I mean, he is going to be phenomenal," Faried told Bleacher Report about Jokic during his rookie campaign. "I can't wait until we're talking about him in the All-Star Game."
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
Simple math works in Andre Drummond's favor. One is less than four.
Under head coach Stan Van Gundy's supervision, the Detroit Pistons run a four-out, one-in scheme that seeks to surround one interior presence with four capable shooters who can space out the floor and draw defensive attention away from the frontcourt player.
Ideally, the man in the middle is capable of rebounding in traffic, scoring out of the post and demanding enough attention that the shooters also get space for their spot-up attempts.
Thus, it's far more difficult to fill the one interior role than it is to find any single member of the quartet of capable marksmen, and the Pistons already have Drummond thriving on the inside.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
Kevin Durant's arrival makes the Golden State Warriors overwhelming favorites to take back their title, but he doesn't immediately supplant Stephen Curry as the team's centerpiece.
Though we can assume Durant will be excellent in the ball-sharing system employed by head coach Steve Kerr, it's still an assumption. Curry, on the other hand, is established as the team's MVP, as well as the first unanimous winner of the leaguewide version of said award.
Think about the dichotomy this way: Even if each member of the superstar duo is one of the NBA's five best players, which man will have to alter his playing style to mesh with the other? Is it Durant who will cede control of the rock and play more off the ball, or is it Curry who will have to settle in as a spot-up shooter?
At this point, it would be nonsensical for Kerr to ask his point guard to change how he operates. Curry's dribbling and creativity made the Dubs hum in 2015-16, and the team's net rating was 13.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor.
Durant will have to make the sacrifices, and that's not what an unquestioned centerpiece is supposed to do.
Houston Rockets: James Harden
Everything the Houston Rockets do on offense runs through James Harden.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, only 10 players averaged more touches per game than him, and every other one of them lined up as a point guard. The same story emerges when we look at average time of possession, except now Harden sits at No. 12, trailing 11 floor generals and no one else.
Because the bearded 2-guard is so adept at handling the rock and serving as a leading scorer or primary playmaker, the rest of the Rockets roster can look different. It can afford to have Patrick Beverley as a non-traditional point guard who specializes in defense and spot-up shooting. It can thrive with three-and-D players who aren't comfortable off the bounce so long as they join Harden on the wings.
Houston would surely prefer that Harden showed more commitment on defense, but it can afford to live with his flaws because his offense is just that good.
How good? According to NBA Math's total points added, he finished with the league's No. 4 overall score despite finishing in the red for his defense.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George
Paul George knows just how important he is to the Indiana Pacers. It's apparent whenever he talks about his leadership abilities, as was the case near the end of June, when he discussed team president Larry Bird with IndyStar.com's Nate Taylor:
I’m glad he’s not letting me waste years. I think Larry and (the rest of the front office) have expressed how bad they want to get back to (the Eastern Conference finals) by these moves this offseason. I’m looking forward to getting us back there. He’s putting talent around me to help me get to what we all want to get accomplish, and that’s a championship.
George believes he's Indy's centerpiece, and he's 100 percent correct—"he's putting talent around me" is about as clear an indication as you'll ever get.
His defensive acumen and ball-handling ability make the Pacers operate at a higher level, and the team is building its fast-paced ideologies around him. Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, Myles Turner and others are important to the cause, but George is the only truly vital player.
Los Angeles Clippers: DeAndre Jordan
The Los Angeles Clippers are one of the few teams without an immediately obvious centerpiece. They could make convincing arguments for each member of their Big Three, though DeAndre Jordan stands out, ever so slightly and by default.
Chris Paul is the best player on the roster, still dominant as one of the league's elite point guards. His ability to control the tempo and make virtually every play imaginable is immaculate and boosts LAC into the realm of Western Conference elites. But his contract contains an early-termination option after this season, and there are no guarantees he stays on the West Coast.
As talented as Blake Griffin is, two concerns loom large: The power forward's injury history is troubling after he was limited to just 35 games played one year after logging 67 appearances. Plus, he's spent the last few months embroiled in trade rumors. Though none has shown any validity, there's some relevant saying about smoke and fire.
That leaves Jordan.
The big man is the least talented member of the Big Three, but he's still a dominant center who deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration while winning rebounding titles (2013-14 and 2014-15, second to Drummond in 2015-16). He's also under contract longer than the other two—he can't become a free agent unless he exercises his player option for the 2018-19 season.
Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram
Filling the void left by Kobe Bryant won't be easy, and only a few players on the Los Angeles Lakers roster are equipped to do so.
Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle have shown flashes of becoming solid NBA starters—the former more so than the latter—but neither has the necessary star power yet. D'Angelo Russell improved throughout his rookie season, but he's still a limited player who needs to overcome the self-created chemistry concerns that popped up at the end of 2015-16.
Brandon Ingram is the final option, and he's also the youngster with the highest ceiling. As talented as Russell may be, the 18-year-old Duke product stands a cut above, even as he tries to put on more weight and prove he's strong enough to survive at the NBA level (listed at 6'9", 190 lbs).
Russell could become one of the league's best guards; Ingram could become one of the league's best players. That's the difference, and it's the reason the Lakers should be looking to build around their newest rookie stud.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
The Memphis Grizzlies have plenty of important pieces.
Marc Gasol is a two-way beast who should help ease the burden of new head coach David Fizdale with his fundamental excellence. The team excels when Gasol is on the floor, and it's easy to build around him. But he's also 31 years old and has suffered numerous major injuries during the last three seasons. Age similarly works against Zach Randolph, despite the 35-year-old's popularity on Beale Street and the enduring nature of his post-up play.
Chandler Parsons isn't quite there yet, though the offseason addition has the talent necessary to become a centerpiece. His knee trouble is problematic in this conversation, as is the fact that he's adjusting to his new teammates and has the game of a supporting piece.
By attrition, the only choice is Conley. Yet, who else could it be but the man with the largest contract in NBA history?
Conley's not one of the truly elite NBA point guards, but his mentality and the quality of his play still make him vital to the Memphis cause. His quick hands and gambling nature can't easily be replicated on defense, and the same is true of his careful distributing on offense.
Miami Heat: Hassan Whiteside
Following the departure of Dwyane Wade to his hometown Chicago Bulls, the Heat are searching for a new face to build around. And given Chris Bosh's enduring health concerns and the lack of star power Goran Dragic has exhibited since leaving the Phoenix Suns, a defensive big is the obvious choice.
The Miami Heat now belong to Hassan Whiteside.
"Just continue the overall development with his body, working on his conditioning, getting stronger while maintaining his weight and flexibility," head coach Erik Spoelstra said in a video about Whiteside's offseason, as transcribed by Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel. "And he will have to be able to absorb more minutes, more responsibility, more games, which is a different level of training in the weight room."
Miami's ability to compete in the Eastern Conference rests on his broad shoulders. Thus, he must accept his role as a max player and definitive leader by continuing to improve while blossoming into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who can contribute in every area.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
No matter how many intriguing players the Milwaukee Bucks have—here's looking at you, Khris Middleton, Thon Maker and Jabari Parker—the franchise is tethered to Giannis Antetokounmpo, especially now that he's proved he can be so successful in an unorthodox way.
The centerpiece is almost always going to be someone the front office schemes around, and that's often a difficult enough proposal when said player operates traditionally. Had Antetokounmpo stayed on the wings, he'd have needed shooters around him and guards who didn't need to handle the ball as frequently.
But this experiment running the show as a point guard was so successful that it appears to be a permanent fixture in Milwaukee's game plan. And that makes it even more obvious the Bucks are building around Antetokounpo's unique talents, since they can afford to roster a spot-up threat such as Matthew Dellavedova and focus their resources on players who handle the ball less frequently.
This franchise will go as the Greek Freak goes, which is a positive as he tracks superstardom.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns
- Karl-Antony Towns, 145.83
- Gorgui Dieng, 105.67
- Ricky Rubio, 87.54
No team has more top-tier options than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Most squads would be happy with any one of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, and some would willingly accept Ricky Rubio. Maybe even Gorgui Dieng, in some cases.
But the Wolves have access to all of them, including each of the last two Rookies of the Year (Wiggins and Towns).
In an attempt to make this clearer, let's turn to NBA Math's total points added and look at which players were most valuable to the team in 2015-16:
Wiggins is nowhere to be found, since he's been miscast as a leading scorer during this early stage of his career. There's little doubt he'll get there. But he's been unable to remain efficient in the face of so much defensive attention, and his own stopping ability isn't yet consistent. He's shown flashes of future stardom, but he's inferior to Towns, who may have even more potential.
Ditto for LaVine, whose defensive woes hold back his developing offense. Dunn isn't on the list since he was playing for Providence last year, but the dual presence of him and Rubio makes it tough for either one to stand out.
Towns showed enough during his first NBA season to emerge as a serious All-Star threat and future MVP candidate. The unanimous Rookie of the Year is not just the Minnesota centerpiece; he's one of the best building blocks in the entire NBA.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis
Can we just move on?
Anthony Davis is the present and future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Even though he's been with the franchise for just four seasons, he may be the past as well.
Unless the Golden State Warriors were willing to offer up Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, there may not be a single player in the league NOLA would trade him for. Frankly, his meager 23 years of age might make it tough for them to even pull the trigger on any hypothetical Curry/Davis deal.
New Orleans surely hopes Buddy Hield becomes a worthy challenger for the centerpiece title. It needs Jrue Holiday to get back to pre-injury All-Star levels in expeditious fashion, and it wouldn't mind a few unexpected breakouts from unheralded players such as E'Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill.
But this is Davis' team; there's no doubt about that.
New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony
The New York Knicks' franchise centerpiece should be Kristaps Porzingis, but team president Phil Jackson and the rest of the front office are hedging their bets.
Signing Joakim Noah to such an expensive deal while he's coming off injuries and well removed from his fringe-MVP campaign is not a sign of commitment to a Latvian 7-footer's long-term growth. Porzingis will eventually settle in at center in the modern NBA, but throwing so much money at Noah guarantees that the youngster will spend much of his early career lining up at the 4.
Given the new additions of Noah and Derrick Rose, the ball won't spend much time in his hands either; there are just too many mouths to feed.
If anything, the offseason maneuvering feels like they're catering to Carmelo Anthony—who has served as the team's centerpiece ever since he forced his way out of Denver—with moves allowing him to spend less time as a facilitator. The team gained a legitimate point guard and a center whose best skill may well be his passing, they're maintaining the interior defense behind him and they're absolving Anthony of inordinate responsibility now that he's no longer the only recognizable face with an established NBA track record.
It's time to pass the torch in the Big Apple, but New York hasn't done so quite yet.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook
There's no more obvious answer in all the NBA.
When Kevin Durant was still playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, there was a constant battle for control of the team. He and Russell Westbrook alternated playing the part of leading superstar, though they still worked together to emerge as a Western Conference contender when both were healthy.
Last season, it was nearly impossible to tell which player was more effective or more valuable. But Durant is now playing in the Bay Area, and Victor Oladipo won't threaten Westbrook for control of the team.
OKC belongs to the dynamic point guard.
Orlando Magic: Evan Fournier
As Zach Lowe wrote for ESPN.com, the Orlando Magic are still struggling to find direction:
They scored well on most of their key rebuilding moves, including the [Dwight] Howard trade, but they never picked high enough in the right draft to nab the tentpole superstar who would define their on-court style.
To rival executives, the Magic still look aimless after a frenzy of transactions sloughed away 10 of the 16 guys who logged at least 200 minutes last season.
That lack of direction makes it difficult to find an actual centerpiece.
Maybe it was Victor Oladipo, but Orlando traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Serge Ibaka, who joins a mismatched and crowded frontcourt. No player in that jumbled-up group can stand out—including Aaron Gordon, who the Magic are pushing to small forward in a move that might risk stunting his development.
Elfrid Payton hasn't shown enough during his young career, and that leaves Evan Fournier as the best option. He's emerged as a versatile offensive contributor who can handle plenty of scoring responsibility, but he lacks the star power you expect from a centerpiece.
He's the choice for now, but the Magic have to hope it's only temporary.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons
Our sincere condolences to Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid and every other high-upside member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
As soon as the team drafted Ben Simmons at No. 1 overall, it handed over the reins to the LSU product. He's just that talented, and he'll play a key role during his rookie season as he takes over the primary ball-handling responsibilities and is tasked with getting the offense back on track.
Philadelphia is still trying to figure out its ultimate direction, as its roster situation is untenable. It can't continue to boast the combined services of Noel, Okafor and Embiid in a league that's trending toward small ball, and that triumvirate only grows more complicated when the other potential centerpieces—Simmons and Saric—both stand 6'10".
No matter how talented each member of that trio may be, the presence of all three mitigates each player's individual value.
Simmons was already the choice, but that situation only cements him as the downtrodden franchise's true building block.
Phoenix Suns: Eric Bledsoe
As Owen Sanborn explained for SB Nation's Bright Side of the Sun, Devin Booker is close to overtaking Eric Bledsoe as the face of the Phoenix Suns franchise:
When I attended the press conference announcing that the Sunswill [sic] be hosting two home games from Mexico City next season, I found it interesting that the "hype" video that is used to market the games showcased more Booker highlights alongside Kawhi Leonard and Dirk Nowitzki rather than our most recent face of the franchise.
Bledsoe was not exiled from the video entirely, but my own intuition told me that his status as the lead dog had been usurped right before my very eyes. Booker may be the apple of many Suns fans' eyes (especially after Summer League), but that doesn't mean that we should all disregard what we already have in Bledsoe.
Bledsoe may be on the verge of losing his centerpiece status, but let's not forget he's coming off a season in which he averaged, while healthy, 20.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 31 games. Only six other players posted those numbers in 2015-16. Of course, he has to stay healthy in order to cement his place in the organization.
Booker hasn't supplanted him yet, no matter how popular he's grown. That's a result of potential rather than production, since the young 2-guard was inefficient as a rookie and struggled on the defensive end. Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender are also threats, though they have to win the competition against each other first.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard
No matter how quickly C.J. McCollum develops, this team belongs to Damian Lillard. It's built everything around his ability to break down a defender and create his own shots.
He's been given a permanent green light, one he capitalizes on by shooting triples off the bounce better than anyone named Steph Curry; he's given autonomy while deciding to function as a scorer or playmaker; and he's automatically granted the last shot in a clutch situation.
Lillard isn't just the best player on the Portland Trail Blazers; he's the clear-cut leader, both on and off the court. He's the heart and soul of the organization, imbuing the roster with passion as he refuses to give up on any play—unless, of course, he's fighting through screens on defense.
And with his five-year max extension kicking in at the start of 2016-17, he's going to fill this role for a long time.
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins
Despite many trade rumors over the years, breathless speculation that the Sacramento Kings had finally experienced enough drama and the many coaches he's gone through, DeMarcus Cousins remains the team's centerpiece.
There simply aren't any other options.; it's tough enough to even find other building blocks on this roster.
Ben McLemore has been a massive bust since he left Kansas. Willie Cauley-Stein is on a promising trajectory after his rookie season, but he's a limited player without a ceiling nearly as high as the level Cousins has already hit. Rudy Gay clearly isn't the choice.
It's Boogie or bust in Sacramento.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
Losing a surefire Hall of Famer such as Tim Duncan would be devastating for most teams, even if two other members of a longtime Big Three—Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker—remain. But the presence of Kawhi Leonard makes everything easier for the San Antonio Spurs.
He's the tone-setter on the defensive end, which should be expected from the man who's won Defensive Player of the Year during each of the last two seasons. Even more importantly, he has license to break out of the vaunted Spurs system that preaches ball movement and teamwork above all else.
Head coach Gregg Popovich allowed Leonard to commandeer possessions with shocking frequency in 2015-16, and that's not likely to change after he posted such excellent shooting splits (50.6 FG%, 44.3 3P% and 87.4 FT%). He's able to work in isolation and keep the ball in his hands for more than a few ticks after proving himself.
The other notable names in San Antonio allow the Spurs to keep pace—well, at least somewhat—with the Golden State Warriors at the top of the Western Conference. But it's Leonard who gives this team its identity on both ends of the floor.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry
The seesaw tilts in Kyle Lowry's favor, and no one else on the Toronto Raptors roster is close to boasting the same star power as its two All-Star guards.
Let's compare the 2015-16 campaigns of DeMar DeRozan and Lowry, using NBA Math's total points added breakdown:
|Player||Offensive Points Added||Defensive Points Saved||Total Points Added|
It's not even close, and additional data supports the Lowry-leaning conclusion.
The Raptors were worse on both ends of the floor with DeRozan, and their net rating dipped by 6.1 points per 100 possessions when he played. With Lowry, the net rating jumped by 7.3 points over the same span. According to NBAWowy.com, the Raptors outscored the opposition by 12.7 points per 100 possessions when Lowry was on the court without DeRozan. In the reverse situation, the net rating stood at minus-5.7.
Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward
Talk about boasting a wealth of options.
The Utah Jazz could view Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert or Rodney Hood as centerpieces. Dante Exum could fall into the same category if he develops as expected, and we can't just overlook George Hill now that he's slotted as the starting point guard.
But Gordon Hayward is still the man in charge, if only because he's the established star who can contribute in myriad facets. Whether serving as a spot-up shooter, the primary playmaker or a wing defender, he can positively impact the proceedings.
We can't say the same about anyone else on the roster.
Of course, this could change at any time. Utah is overflowing with young talent, and a sustained breakout could allow another player to wrest the title away from Hayward. We're looking at Hood above everyone else here.
Washington Wizards: John Wall
I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court. … We got to be able to put that to the side. If you miss somebody on one play or don’t have something go right ... as long as you come to each other and talk. If I start arguing with somebody I'm cool. I'm just playing basketball.
Now that you have your money you got to go out there and improve your game. I want you to be an All-Star just as much as I’m an All-Star. If we were playing well as a tandem like the other two superstars that play together as a backcourt, play as a tandem, one night it's going to be his night, one night it's going to be mine, some nights it might be both of us. Those are nights it's going to be tough to beat us.
If this is an actual problem that's negatively affecting the team's chemistry, one has to be traded.
Are the Washington Wizards going to move the established All-Star who's asserting himself as one of the league's best point guards or the oft-injured shooting guard who hasn't yet developed much since he left Florida? Even though they just inked Beal to an exorbitant extension, that conversation wouldn't take long.
And that's the best case of all for Wall's enduring status as the franchise centerpiece.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.